The local spiritual leaders from Kaya-Giriama ethnic group wait for the transport to visit the mass-grave site in the forest in Shakahola, outside the coastal town of Malindi, on Apr 24, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)
NAIROBI — Kenyan police have recovered 73 bodies, mostly from mass graves in a forest in eastern Kenya, thought to be followers of a Christian cult who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves, a police officer said on Monday.
The death toll, which has repeatedly risen as exhumations have been carried out, could rise further. The Kenyan Red Cross said 112 people have been reported missing to a tracing and counselling desk it has set up at a local hospital.
Earlier on Monday, the country's police chief Japhet Koome, visiting the scene, said most of the people were found in mass graves as well as eight who were found alive and emaciated, but later died
The cult's leader, Paul Mackenzie, was arrested on April 14 following a tip-off that suggested the existence of shallow graves containing the bodies of at least 31 of his followers.
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"The death toll now stands 73 people," Charles Kamau, head detective in Malindi, Kilifi County, told Reuters via telephone.
He said three more people had been arrested, without giving details. Privately-owned NTV channel reported that one of those arrested was being held on suspicion of being a close associate of the leader of the cult.
Followers of the self-proclaimed Good News International Church had been living in several secluded settlements in an 800-acre area within the Shakahola forest.
The Directorate of Criminal Investigations said on Twitter that 33 people had so far been rescued.
Earlier on Monday, the country's police chief Japhet Koome, visiting the scene, said most of the people were found in mass graves as well as eight who were found alive and emaciated, but later died.
Koome said 14 other cult members were in police custody.
Mackenzie was arraigned on April 15 at Malindi Law Courts, where the judge gave police 14 days to conduct investigations while he was kept in detention. Kenyan media have reported that he is refusing food and water.
Reuters was not able to reach any lawyer or representative for Mackenzie.
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President William Ruto said Mackenzie's teachings were contrary to any authentic religion.
"Mr Mackenzie … pretends and postures as a pastor when in fact he is a terrible criminal," said Ruto, who was delivering a speech at an unrelated public event just outside Nairobi.
He said he had instructed relevant agencies to get to the root cause of what had happened and to tackle "people who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology in the Republic of Kenya that is causing unnecessary loss of life".